The Curious J: A science blog

Exploring life, one atom at a time.


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Genetic Engineering Pt. III: Wanna Fight About It?

When most people consider genetic engineering, the first thing that comes to mind is genetically modified organisms (GMOs). While GMOs are a hot topic of debate, they are not the only controversial topic involving genetic modification. For this post, I wanted to explore a few of these areas and take a look at why they are controversial.

We’ll begin with a look at GMOs, but will venture into the world of pure breeding our beloved pets, and the application of genetic engineering in human health. Please note, the point of this post is not so much to present an opinion on these but instead highlight questions and helpful information from both sides’ perspectives. These topics are shrouded in biases and false claims, so I will attempt to present things in simple and objective ways.

I encourage everyone, regardless of their opinion, to have an open-mind and realize that most of life’s answers come in shades of gray that require patience, experimentation and collaboration to determine.

Genetically Modified Organisms – Are You Going to Eat That? 

Are GMOs Safe to Eat?

GMOs can be thought of in two different ways: any organism (plant or animal) that has undergone genetic modification, which includes both artificially selected organisms and those that have been genetically engineered. When making this differentiation, some refer to the latter as genetically engineered organisms, or GEOs.

Since we began to develop agricultural practices and grow crops such as wheat, we’ve been eating artificially selected organisms and these have become the norm – we no longer question their safety. Many of these organisms we have evolved with throughout time and our digestion as well as genetics reflect this.

For GEOs, the question of safety still exists. This stems mostly from worries that either our own genetics will be affected by eating GEOs or that genetic engineering changes the biochemistry of an organism in a way that will harm us when consumed. An interesting consequence of this is that there are more studies being conducted on the safety of GMOs and GEOs then most other foods that we consume, including processed and packaged products – meaning that GEOs may prove to be safer than many other foods we find in the market already (safer not necessarily meaning safe in all instances).

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Flavr Savr Tomatoes were the first GEO product on the food market.

Many food companies are taking advantage of the idea that GMOs are not healthy or safe in order to market their products as non-GMO. However many of these foods are still highly-processed through the hands of humans and not the most nutritionally valuable. So should the argument instead be are any processed foods safe? And should there be further standards for nutrition and safety for all food products we allow in the market beyond those currently in place?

Many people do believe this is the fundamental argument and  advocate for diets focused on unprocessed and organic foods. However, this is where we begin to enter into socioeconomic issues. Organic foods are often significantly more expensive than their processed or GEO counterparts, disallowing entire groups of people to purchase them.

In reality, the consumption of genetically modified food is not just a question of safety and nutrition, but is also a question of accessibility to alternatives and closing the division we have created in our society based on socioeconomic status. As of right now, we are experiencing a market where generally the more wealthy are able to purchase organic foods and those who are struggling financially can afford only the conventionally raised and processed foods. However, many believe there is a trickle-down effect as more companies and restaurants compete in the organic market, driving down prices – so this may very well change overtime.

It should also be noted that many believe that through genetic engineering we can produce crops that can withstand harsh environmental conditions such as drought, and resist predators without the use of pesticides, allowing them to grow in developing countries who would otherwise not be able to grow crops for food or exporting. With our growing populations and increasing environmental damage, if we don’t rely on GEOs, we will need to find an alternative solution for maintaining food supplies and economic development (as we hopefully work to also reverse our environmental damage).

Isn’t Monsanto Evil?

There is some evidence that companies like Monsanto are not genetically modifying crops so that they are better suited for feeding impoverished countries or resisting pests (Monsanto is also a world leader in pesticide production), but instead creating traits that allow the crops to be patented, and essentially building a “crop monopoly” for the company. However, Monsanto has also helped advance our understanding and application of genetic modification and contributes to research focused on environmental conservation

Like any other major corporation, you can identify negative and positive impacts they have on the world, so it’s important to separate individual companies from the general goals and methods of an industry. There are hundreds to thousands of people involved in the GMO/GEO market and many are working towards modifying the type of crops that will help communities that are in need of economic boosts, and nutritious food, and are working to produce plants that will help restore ecological integrity.

Genetically Engineered Animals – Frankenfish? 

Recently, the first genetically engineered animal was approved to be introduced to the food market – the AquAdvantage® salmon. The salmon grows to adult size in half the time as wild-type salmon (those not genetically altered). The process to create the AquAdvantage salmon began over 20 years ago, and health and safety testing has been involved in this process since the beginning.

There should be some concerns however:

  • Will the fish be contained so that they don’t breed with wild-type salmon and introduce the modified genes into the wild population?
    • Breeding with wild fish could introduce the new growth gene into the population, causing a disruption in the life and breeding cycles of wild salmon.
  • Are the fish okay?
  • Are we okay?
    • Studies on the AquAdvantage salmon have shown that there are no negative health effects from consuming the salmon and they carry comparable nutritional values as their wild type, but many food products on the market lead to health problems in the long-term that we need to be aware of and mitigate if they become too serious (this is true of any food).

This article does a good job at providing answers to these questions and the benefits of the AquAdvantage salmon.

AquAdvantage Fish

AquAdvantage salmon compared to a hatchery raised wild-type salmon.

The fact is, any food, no matter where it comes from or how it’s produced, should be scrutinized for it’s effects on human health, animal health, and the health of the environment. And these effects should be tracked overtime to get an understanding of any long-term consequences. GMOs are no different, but they should also not be considered unsafe or unnatural simply due to being processed, as humans have created amazing things from nature, such as Aspirin, and genetic change does not necessitate harm.

Pure Breeding Animals – Are We Hurting Our Best Friends? 

Pure breeding of domestic animals, mainly dogs and cats, began thousands of years ago. To the delight of the world, we’ve created pets and working animals that suite every personality and every lifestyle – from ranch dogs to teacup pets and luxurious breeds that are bred to be rare. Unfortunately, several of the breeds we have created through artificial selection now suffer from genetic disorders.

German Shepherds suffer from hip conditions, Bernese Mountain Dogs suffer from several disorders, including neoplasia in which tumors and abnormal growths cause health complications, and often do not live past 6 years. Brachycephalic breeds – those with flat faces such as bulldogs and persian cats – are not allowed to fly on most major airlines due their inability to breathe during the flight.

We’ve been creating breeds that are either aesthetically pleasing to us or complete a job for us, often without the consideration of the effects on the animal’s health. Pure breeding has a higher correlation with health complications than mixed breed counterparts and many studies have shown that mixed-breeds suffer from a lower level of genetic disorders and often have longer lifespans than pure breeds of similar size.

Thankfully, lovers of these breeds recognize the pain they are causing, and just as genetic issues have been inherited within breed lines, many of these issues can also be “bred out”. Depending on the severity of the disorder, it may be the best option for some breed lines. Finding parents that do not carry the genetic disorder and cross-breeding them leads to at least some if not all offspring also not being carriers – and through generations, the breed can be rid of the disorder.

However, some conditions, such as the flat-faces of brachycephalic breeds cannot be “out bred” without changing the physical appearance and essentially the breed. The question then becomes if we are willing to let certain breeds “go” and allow them to breed into mixed breeds or change their physiology, either through random mixing or by selective breeding. Think about how cute golden doodles are though, we often create new breeds with great benefits to us and the breed.

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Old bulldog skull compared to the newer bulldog skull.

It should be noted that not all purebreds suffer from hereditary genetic disorders (those that are passed on through generations) and mixed breeds can also suffer from genetic disorders.

If you are concerned that your dog suffers from a genetic disorder, there are several genetic tests available. The most widely recognized and perhaps the most comprehensive is offered from Wisdom Health (this is not an ad and I have not used their products before). Before taking a test, speak to your vet about your concerns and how to interpret the test results.

Genetic Engineering & Human Health – The Fear of the Designer Baby 

With the emergence of genetic sequencing and gene therapy in healthcare, there is a rising concern over how genetic information will be used. In a future post, I’ll dive further into genetic sequencing, but for this post I wanted to address the idea of genetic modification within humans for medical purposes.

Why Would We Change Our Genetics?

Genetics are the basis for a majority of our health concerns, including cancer, Alzheimer’s, Huntington’s Disease, and autism, just to name a few. Genetic sequencing has allowed us to identify exactly where in the genome mutations are occurring (changes in our genetic code that cause health abnormalities), and from there we can begin to identify ways to either address the consequences of that mutation – which can be as simple as giving someone an enzyme that they do not produce themselves (due to inherited disorders of metabolism) – or correct the genetic code itself.

Besides studies using in vitro methods (outside of the body), altering human genetics through techniques such as CRISPR-Cas9 is not practiced and generally not condoned in the scientific community until further standards around safety and application are determined.

In vivo (within the body) techniques in practice utilize naturally occurring components of our cells to produce genetic responses. Sequencing allows us to determine the genetic cause of a health disorder and from there we can determine potential gene therapies, which would modify the patient’s genes in a way that stops or reverses a disorder. This is most commonly accomplished by introducing proteins or fragments of nucleic acid (RNA or DNA) – lipids and carbohydrates are also being studies – which will either:

  • Replace a mutated, inactive, or missing gene.
  • Silence an active gene, such as a mutated and cancer-causing gene.
  • Introduce a gene that will create a therapeutic protein (such as a protein necessary for our natural immune response to kick in)

Promising therapeutics are on the rise in numerous areas including, but not limited to cancer, neurological conditions, and pediatric disorders.

Will the Future Have Designer Babies?

An area of high concern regarding genetic modification is babies. The idea of changing a child’s genetics not to address a medical condition but instead alter them to carry specific desirable trait is straight out of an episode of Star Trek. Although there have been some studies looking at genetically engineering within humans, with the only published work coming out of China, the science and safety behind these have been unsubstantiated and require significant work before they are considered ethically and medically sound, if they ever are.

On the other hand, non-invasive prenatal testing allows us to take a blood sample from a pregnant woman and separate the baby’s DNA from the mother’s. The baby’s DNA is then tested for abnormalities and if detected, expectant parents and their doctors are able to make more well-informed decisions on how to care for their child or in the least have an answer to why they experience miscarriages. Some conditions may be treatable through actions taken by the mother, such as diet changes or potential medications and gene therapies.

StarTrek

B’Elanna with her child in “Lineage“, the 158th episode of the TV series Star Trek: Voyager

In the future, therapeutics may be available that directly change our genetic code, especially if it means preventing a miscarriage or pediatric disorder, but for now look into gene therapy as a rising industry and an area of optimistic development.

Where Do We Go From Here?

We’re really just beginning to understand genetics, how they effect who we are, and how we can better control our futures with gene editing tools.

Many people who support genetic engineering envision a future where struggling communities and developing countries can grow their own food, and one where we’ve used our technology and knowledge to strengthen our environment and reverse ecological damage, including the causes and effects of climate change and species extinction.

Many people who do not support genetic engineering envision the same future, but through a different means.

It’s time we stopped bashing each other for having differing opinions on the process, and begin to work together to find solutions and realistic compromises. The world truly takes all kinds, and we must work together to create the beautiful future so many of us have in mind.

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Károly Markó, Árkádiában, 1830. [Hungarian National Gallery]

 

 

 

 

 

 


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Genetic Engineering: The Good, The Bad, and The Ugly

After the completion of the human genome project, the field of genetics began to gain popularity and intrigue with the general public. Genetics, as a field, has been explored since the early 19th century, beginning with Imre Festetics, a long forgotten predecessor to Gregor Mendel, but it wasn’t until recently that it became center stage in our everyday lives-everything from disease, ancestry, medicine, and personality are wrapped up in genetics. This makes sense when you view genes as personal codes: encoding what eye color we have, which hand we write with, and which diseases we are prone to getting. Our genes encode our existence in a very real way, so understanding genetics leads to a better understanding of what it means to be human and what it means to be us. 

Genetics can be a daunting and even scary field to study, but now that genetic engineering and personalized medicine are being covered by media and discussed online, it’s time for the general public to have a solid understanding of what genetics is and especially how their own genetics affect them. This is the beginning of a 3-part series  regarding genetics and genetic engineering. This first post will cover an overview of genetics and genetic engineering. The next two will discuss tools and techniques used for genetic engineering, such as CRISPR, and the more controversial side of genetics, such as “designer babies” and genetically modified organisms.

What is genetics? 

Instead of repeating most of the information that is available online or in text books, I thought it would be more efficient to share some links that I believe cover the topic of genetics well. Understanding genetics is essential to understanding genetic engineering, so before proceeding to the next section I highly recommend checking out at least one of the following links:

 

Genetic Engineering: An Introduction

Genetic engineering may seem like a new 21st century technology, especially with its recent boom in media coverage and controversy, but the concept has been in the scientific community since the 70’s and is in fact a naturally occurring process. The technology used for genetic engineering began to form in 1973 when Herbert Boyer and Stanley N. Cohen performed the first successful genetic recombination experiment. Together they were were able to combine two separate plasmids-carriers of genes-and clone the new recombined plasmid into E. coli. The recombined plasmid was functional and provided the E. coli with genes resistant to both tetracycline and kanamycin, both antibiotics. This same process occurs naturally in bacteria, usually with the assistance of viruses (see my previous post for an explanation), and this is why we have “antibiotic resistant” strains of bacteria.

Speaking of naturally occurring cases of genetic engineering, there is the case of the sweet potato. Several studies, including one at the International Potato Center in Lima, Peru, have found that sweet potatoes were genetically modified by bacteria approximately 8,000 years ago. Bacteria, such as Agrobacterium, are present in soils and act like a virus by injecting plant cells with their genes. Once these genes are inside the plant cells, they produce proteins within the plant-effectively changing that plant. Researchers from Peru believe that the modifications caused from the bacterial genes helped make sweet potatoes more edible for humans. Today sweet potatoes are the 7th most important crop in the world according to the Agriculture Organization of the United Nations.

So, what is genetic engineering? And is it all the same? The simple answers are: modification of an organism by the insertion of a functional gene from a different organism, and no. But this isn’t a subject that can boiled down to black and white, or right and wrong, and one that not only requires, but deserves to be looked at in depth. So, with that being said, let’s begin by describing what genetic engineering is.

Defining Genetic Engineering: 

Genetic engineering, or genetic modification, can be done using several different processes, but the basic purpose is the same: to alter an organism on the genetic level, by either inserting or removing a gene. The gene could come from the same type of organism (i.e. E. coli to E. coli) or from different organisms, such as the follow-up experiment done by Boyer and Cohen which consisted of taking a gene from the African clawed frog, Xenophs laevis, and inserting it into E. coli.

Genetic engineering is commonly divided into two categories: modification using biotechnology (traditional genetic engineering), or modification through selective breeding or other forms of artificial selection. The latter is often not considered genetic engineering at all, but on the genetic level, they are actually quite similar processes. This will be explained further in the next post.

In order to get a better understanding of genetic modification and the processes used to achieve it, some common terms need to be defined first. When genetic material, either RNA or DNA, is taken from two different organisms and combined together it is considered recombinant nucleic acid (DNA or RNA). When the recombinant nucleic acid is successfully inserted into an organism, that organism is either termed transgenic, if the material came from a different type of organism, or cisgenic, if the material came from the same type of organism. While transgenic and cisgenic are commonly used in the scientific community, the more popularized term for any genetically altered organism is genetically modified organism (GMO). Alternatively, organisms can have a gene “knocked out”, or made non-functional, through gene knockout techniques and these organisms are referred to simply as knockout organisms.

Final Note

Genetic engineering also has roots in stem cell and cell cloning science, but for the purpose of these posts I’ll be concentrating on the modification of plants and animals through traditional genetic modification and artificial selection. In the second post of this series, I’ll be discussing the tools and actual processes used to create modified organisms. Until then, brush up on your genetics, and enjoy some sweet potatoes.

To Be Continued..